Nominations to be taken again to fill ethics panel

Friday, July 31, 2009

On advice from their attorney, Marshall County commissioners on Monday decided to refrain from electing two new members of the Ethics Committee which this month has received its third complaint.

Strict adherence to the state public meetings law calling for adequate public notice was apparently not followed and so County Attorney Ginger Shofner said, "I would recommend that you put your notice in the paper. It would be better to do that."

As a result, the nominations of Commissioners Wilford "Spider" Wentzel and Tony White were deemed null and void since the Nominating Committee had technically not met on July 20 when White and Wentzel were nominated to succeed County Clerk Daphne Fagan and Commissioner Linda Williams-Lee. Lee's moving from her district. Fagan resigned saying as custodian of records she and those who file ethics complaints were in an awkward position since as a member she'd have to vote on ethics complaints that could be based on records she maintains.

Tennessee's Sunshine Law calls for public business to be conducted in a way that's not only in an open meeting, but also after the public has had an opportunity to become aware of when decisions are to be made. There have been various legal interpretations of the phrase adequate public notice, but Shofner's recommendation was for a paid legal notice that includes documented proof of publication. Nationally, that's usually deemed appropriate in a newspaper of general circulation, meaning the paper with paid subscriptions. Violations of Tennessee's Sunshine Law provision on open meetings make the action of a panel null and void.

Commissioner Don Ledford, chairman of the Nominating Committee, has taken responsibility for not forwarding an e-mail to the county mayor's secretary to have a legal notice published here. It was an oversight by a part-time public official while working a full-time job to make a living for his family.

The delay in returning the Ethics Committee to full strength comes after the ethics panel on July 13 resolved its first set of cases with votes on the second target of complaints from an environmental organization created in the wake of a proposed landfill at Cornersville.

Now, a former Marshall County Schools bus driver has filed a complaint, naming several officials with that department of county government, including Schools Director Stan Curtis, Human Resources Director Mitchell Byrd and former Transportation Director Glen Ezell.

"I figured he would," Wentzel said Monday night of former bus driver Larry Barlar, the complainant who filed his ethics complaint on July 22.

"That would have been a given that someone would file a complaint," the prospective ethics committeeman said Monday night before the County Commission met.

Dismissals, and decisions against renewing contracts at the school system have attracted attention in recent months. Barler was a school bus driver who lost his job despite a personnel record that's been described as excellent.

"He may have grounds," Wentzel said. "Wasn't he a police officer for 27 years? You'd think he'd know how to investigate something."

Like Wentzel, other county officials were asked on Monday about Balar's complaint.

Commissioners Phil Willis, Mickey King and Mary Ann Neill and County Mayor Joe Boyd Liggett said they'd heard "something" about the complaint, but declined to say anything more for reasons including lack of time to read what Barlar wrote.

"I'll leave it up to the Ethics Committee," Liggett said. "That's their duty."

As he described the chain of events leading toward a Nominating Committee, Ledford explained he'd been aware that Williams-Lee was building a home at Creekside.

Then, told by Neill that Williams-Lee was resigning as of July 31, Ledford said there was a rush to fill empty seats on the committee "because it became known there would be another ethics complaint."

Ledford "wasn't to try to hide anything [and] ... thought the meeting was announced," the Nominating Committee chairman said.

That committee must reconvene anyway, he said because of the Commission-authorized creation of a committee to recommend a purchasing procedure. No date for that meeting had been set as of Thursday morning because, in part, Ledford's work schedule is "tight," and so it might be held next week or later.